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Diet and vitamin intake
Many studies have looked for a link between certain diets and breast cancer risk, but so far the results have been conflicting. Some studies have indicated that diet may play a role, while others found no evidence that diet influences breast cancer risk. Studies have looked at the amount of fat in the diet, intake of fruits and vegeatables, and intake of meat. No clear link to breast cancer risk was found. Studies have also looked at vitamin levels, again with inconsistent results. Some studies actually found an increased risk of breast cancer in women with higher levels of certain nutrients. Also, so far, no study has shown that taking vitamins reduces breast cancer risk. This is not to say that there is no point in eating a healthy diet. A diet low in fat, low in red meat and processed meat, and high in fruits and vegeatables may have other health benefits.
Most studies have found that breast cancer is less common in countries where the typical diet is low in total fat, low in polyunsaturated fat, and low in saturated fat. On the other hand, many studies of women in the United States have not found breast cancer risk to be related to dietary fat intake. Researchers are still not sure how to explain this apparent disagreement. It may be at least partly due to the effect of diet on body weight (see below). Also, studies comparing diet and breast cancer risk in different countries are complicated by other differences (such as activity level, intake of other nutrients, and genetic factors) that might also alter breast cancer risk.
More research is needed to better understand the effect of the types of fat eaten on breast cancer risk. But it is clear that calories do count, and fat is a major source of these. High-fat diets can lead to being overweight or obese, which is a breast cancer risk factor. A diet high in fat has also been shown to influence the risk of developing several other types of cancer, and intake of certain types of fat is clearly related to heart disease risk.
The American Cancer Society recommends eating a healthy diet with an emphasis on plant sources. This includes eating 5 or more servings of vegetables and fruits each day, choosing whole grains over those that are processed (refined), and limiting consumption of processed and red meats.
Internet e-mail rumors have suggested that chemicals in underarm antiperspirants are absorbed through the skin, interfere with lymph circulation, and cause toxins to build up in the breast, eventually leading to breast cancer. There is very little laboratory or population-based evidence to support this rumor.
One small study has found trace levels of parabens (used as preservatives in antiperspirants and other products), which have weak estrogen-like properties, in a small sample of breast cancer tumors. However, the study did not look at whether parabens caused the tumors. This was a preliminary finding, and more research is needed to determine what effect, if any, parabens may have on breast cancer risk. On the other hand, a large population-based study found no increase in breast cancer in women who used underarm antiperspirants and/or shaved their underarms.
Internet e-mail rumors and at least one book have suggested that bras cause breast cancer by obstructing lymph flow. There is no good scientific or clinical basis for this claim. Women who do not wear bras regularly are more likely to be thinner or have less dense breasts, which would probably contribute to any perceived difference in risk.
Several studies have provided very strong data that neither induced abortions nor spontaneous abortions (miscarriages) have an overall effect on the risk of breast cancer. For more detailed information, see the separate American Cancer Society document, Is Abortion Linked to Breast Cancer?
Several studies have found that breast implants do not increase breast cancer risk, although silicone breast implants can cause scar tissue to form in the breast. Implants make it harder to see breast tissue on standard mammograms, but additional x-ray pictures called implant displacement views can be used to examine the breast tissue more completely.
Chemicals in the environment
A great deal of research has been reported and more is being done to understand possible environmental influences on breast cancer risk.
Of special interest are compounds in the environment that have been found in lab studies to have estrogen-like properties, which could in theory affect breast cancer risk. For example, substances found in some plastics, certain cosmetics and personal care products, pesticides, and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) seem to have such properties.
Although this issue understandably invokes a great deal of public concern, at this time research does not show a clear link between breast cancer risk and exposure to these substances. Unfortunately, studying such effects in humans is difficult. More research is needed to better define the possible health effects of these and similar substances.
Most studies have found no link between cigarette smoking and breast cancer. Although some studies have suggested smoking increases the risk of breast cancer, this remains controversial.
An active focus of research is whether secondhand smoke increases the risk of breast cancer. Both mainstream and secondhand smoke contain chemicals that, in high concentrations, cause breast cancer in rodents. Chemicals in tobacco smoke reach breast tissue and are found in breast milk.
The evidence on secondhand smoke and breast cancer risk in human studies is controversial, at least in part because smokers have not been shown to be at increased risk. One possible explanation for this is that tobacco smoke may have different effects on breast cancer risk in smokers compared to those who are just exposed to secondhand smoke.
A report from the California Environmental Protection Agency in 2005 concluded that the evidence about secondhand smoke and breast cancer is "consistent with a causal association" in younger, mainly pre-menopausal women. The 2006 US Surgeon General's report, The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke, concluded that there is "suggestive but not sufficient" evidence of a link at this point. In any case, this possible link to breast cancer is yet another reason to avoid secondhand smoke.
Several studies have suggested that women who work at night, such as nurses on night shift, may have an increased risk of developing breast cancer. This is a fairly recent finding, and more studies are looking at this issue. Some researchers think the effect may be due to changes in levels of melatonin, a hormone whose production is affected by the body's exposure to light, but other hormones are also being studied.
Risk factors you cannot change